Published on July 20, 2016

Understanding Provider Credentials 101

You’re looking for the right provider to give you medical care, but it’s starting to feel like you might need a secret decoder ring.

In Owensboro Health Medical Group we have more than 180 providers across more than 30 specialties, and they practice at more than 25 locations. That’s a lot of options to choose from, and after each of their names are their credentials. We have MDs, DOs, APRNs, PA-Cs, and more. How do you decipher those letters, and how do you choose who is right for you?

Here’s a guide to those credentials, and what they mean for you.


This is perhaps the best-recognized medical provider credential. MDs are “medical doctors,” having earned an undergraduate degree and completing medical school. They’re required to complete an internship and residency, which help them gain vital experience.


Short for “Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine,” there’s only one difference between an MD and a DO. A DO must take one extra class, which covers a type of hands-on care used for diagnosing, treating and preventing illness or injury. Like an MD, a DO must also complete an internship and residency after medical school.

Doctor, doctor

MDs and DOs can practice primary care, or they can choose to specialize. Examples include heart and vascular care (cardiology), brain and nervous system (neurology) or cancer (oncology). They can also complete specialty fellowship training.

Owensboro Health’s doctors are licensed by the states of Kentucky and Indiana. Both require doctors to complete continuing education courses each year, so they stay up to date. If they don’t complete the courses, they can lose their medical license.

Owensboro Health also requires all new doctors to complete board certification, a series of classes and exams prepared by the national board in their area of practice, within five years of joining. This demonstrates they meet high national standards to which all doctors in their field are held.

Doctors can also join professional organizations. For example, a surgeon can become a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, so they might then use “John Q. Surgeon, MD, FACS” on their business card.

Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners are nurses who have committed to taking their practice to the next level. To become a nurse practitioner, they must first complete their bachelor’s degree in nursing, followed by a master’s degree in nursing. They also must pass a national nurse practitioner exam. Once they pass that, they earn the Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) credential. They must also complete continuing education courses and recertification exams.

Becoming a nurse practitioner takes a commitment to gain even more education and experience. This allows them to practice more independently and also to prescribe medications. They often offer primary care services, but many choose to enter a specialty field.

Nurse practitioners can even take their education and skills even further. They can choose to complete a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), or they can earn advanced specialty certifications. A few examples include becoming a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP), a Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (CPNP) or a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP).


A certified Physician Assistant (PA-C) is an advanced practice clinician that has similarities to nurse practitioners, but also some big differences. Where a nurse practitioner has a nursing background and education, a PA has a medical training and background.

To become a PA, it takes earning a master’s degree in physician assistant studies and then becoming licensed by a state board of medical licensure. A PA is also qualified and licensed to be a more independent provider, and they can also prescribe medicine. Many practice primary care, but they can also specialize in many different fields.

An example of this is a PA who specializes in cardiothoracic surgery. While the cardiothoracic surgeon is doing the initial stages of a heart bypass, their PA may be doing a minor surgery of their own, collecting a blood vessel from the patient’s leg. The surgeon can then use that harvested blood vessel to create a path for blood to flow around a blockage in the heart.

The Choice Is Yours

So who is right for you? It depends on what you need. The internet can be a great tool for getting to know a provider before you ever meet them face-to-face. For doctors who practice at or are affiliated with Owensboro Health, you can see physician profiles by going to and clicking “Find a Provider.”

I encourage you to take your time doing your research, and then to pick a provider with whom you feel comfortable. Having an expert provider, with whom you have a good relationship, can help you both work together to make your care and your overall health something truly special.

The article originally appeared in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer.

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering; Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital; Owensboro Health Twin Lakes Medical Center; the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprised of over 200 providers at more than 20 locations; three outpatient Healthplex facilities, a certified medical fitness facility, the Healthpark; a surgical weight loss center and program, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center.

On average each year, we have 16,000 inpatient admissions, deliver 2,000 babies and provide the region’s only Level III NICU. Owensboro Health physicians perform nearly 24,000 surgical procedures, including nearly 200 open-heart surgeries. Our physicians and staff have 70,000 Emergency Department visits, more than a million outpatient visits annually. Visit our home page for more information.

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